Bella steered the Land Rover carefully along the narrow, unlit country road, thankful yet again for the way the off-roader clung to the slippery surface, the big tyres biting deeply into the soft snow. To her left, Edward’s head lolled in sleep as she guided the car up and down the winding and switchback highway that cut through the Cotswold Hills and towards her destination.
The snowfall had eased somewhat, although it hadn’t yet stopped, laying across the landscape like a vast white eiderdown. The wind was starting to get up, and Bella could already see the effects of drifting, where the snow piled up against the dry stone walls and farm buildings, and she gave silent thanks that they were nearly there. Indeed, as that thought flittered through her mind, she saw the sign for Chipping Mallard, and she instinctively pressed a little harder on the accelerator in order to get to the cottage. The weather had seriously delayed their progress since coming off the motorway, which meant that it was now nearly 3.00AM and she was exhausted.
She drove through the tiny, sleeping village and out the other end, before slowing to go over a narrow humpbacked bridge spanning a small, snowed up tributary of the River Severn. On the other side, she made a sharp left turn, being extra careful not to let the car fishtail in the hazardous conditions—she was too close to home to risk turning them over now—and then slowed again a few hundred yards down the road.
Before her was a pair of white-painted gates, spanning an opening in the stone wall which separated the property from the road. Beyond it was a short driveway leading up to a long, low thatched cottage, which was blanketed in snow.
Bella stopped the car and reached behind her seat to grab her parka from where Edward had tossed it earlier. From under her seat she retrieved her bag, delving inside and pulling out a set of keys. She glanced over at Edward, but saw he was still asleep, and imagined he must be even more tired than she. Pulling the coat around her, she slipped her arms awkwardly into the sleeves, then quietly opened the door and stepped down into the deep, crisp snow. Immediately, she cringed as the cold seeped into her feet, even through her snuggly Ugg boots. Not wanting to let the cold air into the car or wake Edward just yet, she pushed the door gently to without closing it, and plodded the short distance to the gates. There was a sturdy new padlock securing them and she immediately selected a key on the ring and unlocked it, pulling it free and pushing the gates open. It was hard work, as she had to sweep a large amount of snow back, but she finally made a wide enough opening to allow her to drive through.
Minutes later, she was parked in front of the dark house, the gates were closed and she was standing in the stone porch, unlocking the front door. Pushing it open, she was immediately assailed by cold, dank, somewhat musty air, and she cringed a little at the thought of how they would warm the place up enough to be able to sleep—and how long it would take.
She glanced back at the car, where Edward still slept. She had left the engine running to keep the interior warm, as she didn’t want Edward’s temperature to drop again. Hopefully, the sound of the idling motor wouldn’t disturb her neighbours, as she wanted to keep it going until she had at least turned on the electricity and fired up the boiler. She had arranged for the utility bills to be transferred to her name and for the power to be turned back on once probate on her grandmother’s estate had been settled, so as long as the pipes hadn’t frozen, she was optimistic that she could get some heat generated reasonably quickly—although it was likely the place had been empty and cold for so long it would take a while for the heat to chase the dampness from the walls.
Bella had come prepared, and delved into her bag for a torch*. Switching it on, she directed the beam inside the house and made her way tentatively inside. She couldn’t help shivering, not just from the cold, but from the way the darkness seemed to swallow her up as she ventured further indoors. The glow of her torch did little to dispel the feeling, and she quickened her steps in order to get the place lit and heated as soon as possible.
She had only been here a couple of times before, the first time, very briefly, when she had first been informed of her inheritance, the news of which had been a considerable shock. She had returned a month or so later to take further stock of what she had been left by her estranged grandmother, and had been surprised and delighted with the property. True, it was a little shabby and in need of some work, but nothing more than decorative, as the house itself was solid and well-maintained. The thatched roof had been a worry, but she had been assured that it had recently been fully refurbished and would certainly keep the weather out for another twenty years at least before it needed attention. During the intervening months, under the management and supervision of a local estate agent,* she had arranged for builders and decorators to come in and smarten the place up a bit, including a new kitchen and bathrooms. She hoped they’d done a good job.
Stepping into the kitchen, Bella found that she easily recalled the layout and crossed the tiled floor unerringly, the torch’s beam picking out the pine door which she knew led to the basement. Wasting no time, she threw it open and headed down the wooden stairs into the bowels of the house. Here the air was even colder and staler and she was keen to do what she’d come for and get out of there. With this in mind, she swept the beam across the back wall until it fell upon the fuse box, and moments later, having flipped the switch, she was able to flood the basement with light.
Sighing with relief, she trotted back up the stairs and into the kitchen. By the light from the basement, she quickly located and flicked the switches to illuminate the cosy area, dominated by pine and terracotta. It looked like her money had been well-spent.
Mentally crossing her fingers, she went over to the cupboard where she knew the boiler was housed and pulled it open. It was a very simple and modern appliance, and, saying one last prayer, she pulled open the flap which hid the controls, turned the dial to its winter setting and activated the timer. For a heart-stopping nanosecond she thought nothing was going to happen, and then she heard the soft ‘wumph’ as the pilot light ignited and the heating system kicked in.
Bella couldn’t help doing a little happy dance where she stood, although when her face split into a grin, she winced at the pain in her cheek and eye, which she’d almost forgotten about.
But she couldn’t think about that now. Turning up the thermostat, she made her way round the ground floor, putting her hand to the radiators to check if they were heating up. A couple clearly needed bleeding, but she could already feel the warmth starting to seep into the space and decided it was something that could wait until tomorrow. Hopefully, the upstairs rads were also working, but she decided she needed to go get Edward before she ventured up to the bedrooms.
Heading back outside, she saw that the car was still idling away, the heat from the engine and exhaust melting a clear space around it.
Carefully, she opened the passenger door and put her hand on Edward’s arm, shaking him gently.
“Edward, wake up,” she urged him quietly. He immediately jerked away from her, his head whipping around, eyes like saucers and full of fear, making her pull back.
“Sorry, sorry. I… we’re here, Edward.” Bella was taken aback by Edward’s reaction, but decided he had probably just been having a bad dream.
His eyes seemed to refocus as he took in his surroundings, and then he started climbing out of the car.
“Hang on, you need to put your shoes on,” Bella told him, opening the back passenger door and reaching inside to gather his things and handing them to him.
He gave her a sheepish look and took the shoes from her, slipping them on his bare feet and getting out.
“Jesus fuck, it’s cold,” he exclaimed, making her chuckle.
“Well spotted. Come on, I’ve got the electricity and the heating on, so let’s grab our stuff and get inside. You better keep that blanket wrapped round you until it warms up in there. Can you give me a hand with my stuff?”
They got all the bags out of the car and, between them, managed to carry it all in without having to make a second trip. Bella turned the engine off and locked the car, hurrying in behind Edward and shutting the door against the icy wind. It had stopped snowing, but the breeze had picked up and was now blowing hard, causing the loose snow to drift against every static barrier.
They dumped everything in the hallway, and Bella led the way into the sitting room, where she went straight over to the huge fireplace. The grate was empty and cleaned out, but there was a large pile of logs on one side of the hearth, together with a copper container full of kindling and a massive box of matches.
Bella had last visited the house back in late May, when she had first consulted her estate agent in order to get a survey done and have the place valued, in case she wanted to sell. At the time, the agent had recommended hiring a gardener and having the chimneys swept, advice she was now extremely grateful to have followed, and she immediately set about laying a fire and lighting it. As the flames licked around the dry kindling, she carefully placed a small log into the middle. Despite the initial dampness of the air, the logs were dry and quick to burn, and within a very short time she was able to add several more. Twenty minutes after she and Edward had brought all her bags in, a roaring fire was heating the room and chasing the last, lingering tentacles of cold and damp from the lower floor of the house.
Edward sat in a high-backed, winged chair set to one side of the giant stone hearth, looking on in amazement and awe. He had the blanket wrapped tightly around himself, his hands thrust into his armpits for warmth.
Bella turned away from the fire, her face flushed with heat, and caught him looking at her in much the same way as she imagined a cavemen would have watched a comrade first make fire, and she giggled at his expression.
He looked up at her, his mouth agape. “Fuck me, that’s… you’re… fuck me!”
Bella laughed and then immediately hissed with pain. Instantly, Edward was on his feet and standing in front of her, his hand coming up tentatively, as if to touch her face, and then dropping away. Startled, Bella looked up into his unfeasibly green eyes, noticing for the first time how tall he was, as he towered over her. Jake had been a similar height, but unlike when he had loomed over her, she didn’t feel in the least bit intimidated or frightened.
In fact, thin as he was, all she could think about was that she had never laid eyes on a more stunning man. He robbed her of words, of her very breath.
“Christ, Bella, somebody really laid into you. What the fuck happened?” It was beyond Edward’s understanding that anyone could hit any woman, let alone one so kind, so beautiful, so… perfect.
Bella shook her head to clear it of the thoughts which swirled around it, dropping her eyes to the floor and stepping back. “It’s fine… I’m fine.” She turned and walked away, and a moment later he followed her as she exited the room and headed upstairs.
The first door opened into a large guest room, with a double bed and fitted wardrobes, together with a dresser, chair and two small bedside tables. It was already beginning to warm up, as the radiator seemed to be working perfectly. She turned to Edward and smiled.
“Will this do you? It’s not en-suite, but the family bathroom is right opposite,” she said, heading across the passage and opening the door to show him the spacious bathroom, containing a large, claw-foot bath, basin, toilet and shower cubicle.
“There should be bed linen in the airing cupboard. It’s probably a bit musty after all this time, but it’ll be clean, and will be starting to air out.” She went to the next door on that side of the passage, which opened to reveal a hot water tank with shelves above and stacks of neatly folded sheets, duvet covers and towels. She grabbed a couple of towels and held them to her nose.
“Hmm, they’re not too bad, actually. Here…” She held out a towel to him, which he took and then gathered up enough linen to make up two beds.
Half an hour later she had made up his bed, plus the one in the master bedroom at the end of the passage. Bella was gratified to discover that both beds had electric under-blankets, and she turned them on as soon as the beds were made. With that done, they both headed back downstairs.
The sitting room was now toasty warm, and Bella was tempted to plop down on the sofa and stay in front of the fire, but it was past four o’clock in the morning and she was desperate for sleep. However, she could feel hunger gnawing at her and knew she would have to eat first.
In the kitchen, she checked the cupboards, finding a few cans, some powdered milk, and various condiments. On checking through the tinned food, she discovered some vegetable soup, and, even though it was horrendously late, she felt her stomach start to rumble and knew that Edward, too, must be starving.
“Fancy some soup?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Oh God, yes, please!” he groaned, too hungry to politely refuse.
Bella smiled at him, grabbing two tins and quickly pouring the contents into a saucepan. Ten minutes later they were both sat in front of the fire, their hands cupped around large ceramic bowls as they greedily spooned too-hot soup into their mouths.
When they’d finished, Bella took the bowls and put them in the sink; she would wash them tomorrow. Returning to the sitting room, she could see Edward’s eyes drooping in the warmth from the fire, and knew she needed to chase him up to bed before he fell asleep.
“Hey, come on, don’t fall asleep there. Get yourself up to bed.”
“Hmmm? Yeah, okay.” He stood up and turned to go up, but then noticed she wasn’t following him. “Hey, what about you.”
“I’m just going to bank the fire and put the guard up. With a bit of luck, it’ll stay lit well into the morning and keep the whole house warm. These cottages are great in the winter once the heat gets into the walls and stays there. Go on, I’ll be going up in a minute.” She smiled reassuringly at him, waiting until he obeyed and started to leave. As he reached the door, he turned back to look at her, and called her name. Turning, she gave him a quizzical smile.
“Are you okay? Is there something you need?” she asked.
“Just to say… well, thanks. I don’t quite know how I’ll ever repay you, but I’m incredibly grateful to you, Bella.” He spoke softly, his voice intense and imbued with sincerity.
She smiled at him. “You’re truly welcome, Edward. Now go get some sleep—and pray there won’t be any more snow tomorrow.”
Twenty minutes later, she followed him up, pausing for a moment outside his room and listening at the door. She could hear nothing, and took that as a sign that he was asleep, and carried on to her own room.
As she undressed quickly and pulled some warm pyjamas from her suitcase to put on, it occurred to her that she ought, perhaps, to be concerned that a complete stranger was sleeping just a few yards from her bedroom. But she couldn’t bring herself to worry about it. She knew, innately, that Edward wouldn’t hurt her, and her only thought was that she was just so relieved that he was here, under her roof, in a warm bed, instead of dying alone on the side of a road, as people drove past, unknowing and uncaring.
Bella came awake with a jerk, her heart beating rapidly. She lay in her warm bed, just listening, as she tried to figure out what had woken her. Just as she was beginning to think she must have been dreaming, she heard it again.
A long, drawn out cry.
Over and over it rang out in the darkness, and after a few moments while her sleep-befuddled mind struggled to make sense of it, she finally realised that it was coming from the room along the passage.
Suddenly mindless of the cold, Bella threw back the duvet, and shot out of bed, not even bothering with her robe or slippers.
She yanked open her door and flew down the hallway, stopping abruptly in front of Edward’s door and knocking a rapid tattoo on the wood.
“Edward… Edward… are you okay? Edward?”
“Please nooooo... pleeeaasse.”
A loud sob burst out of him and Bella couldn’t wait any longer. Twisting the doorknob, she threw the door open and strode quickly over to the bed, where Edward was twisted up in his duvet, tossing and turning violently as his hands flailed about him, as if trying to fight off an invisible assailant.
Without really knowing what she was doing, Bella acted on instinct alone. Grabbing his two hands in hers, she held them to her chest as she bent over the bed and called out to him.
“Edward, hey, it’s okay, shhhh, it’s all okay, you’re safe…”
His hands stopped trying to pull away from her and she let go of one of them in order to free up her own hand. As she did, she felt his grip on her other hand tighten. Climbing up on the bed to sit beside him, she reached up and ran her fingers through his hair. It wasn’t that clean, feeling a little greasy, but she was surprised at how soft it was, nevertheless. She repeated the soothing gesture, and was pleased to see that he was beginning to calm.
“Shhh, beautiful boy, it’s fine, you’re safe… shhh, sleep now, everything’s going to be okay…” She continued to stroke his hair and coo softly to him until he stopped jerking and crying out, and she could tell by his breathing that he had fallen into a dreamless sleep.
It was at this point that she realised how cold she was, despite having left the heating on. She started to get up, pulling gently to extricate her hand from his, but, even in sleep, she felt him tense and hold on tighter. She stopped pulling for a moment, waiting until she felt his fingers relax, and then finally managed to get her hand free.
She stood beside the bed for a moment, rubbing her hands up and down her arms to warm herself as she looked down on his thin, gaunt face. She had drawn the curtains ealier, but he had obviously opened them again before getting into bed, and now she could clearly see his striking features in the silvery light cast by the nearly full moon, it’s glow accentuated by the reflection from the bright, white snow.
Not for the first time, she had to shake herself to rid her mind of the sly thoughts which tried to insinuate themselves into her consciousness—thoughts she had no business giving house-room to.
Edward was a homeless itinerant, probably barely out of his teens, and she had left a bad relationship only hours earlier. Whatever pull she felt towards him was surely borne out of sympathy for his plight, nothing more.
“Pull yourself to pieces, you foolish woman,” she whispered irritably to the silent room, then turned away from the bed and hurried back to her own room.
As she slid back into bed she didn’t notice the snow starting to fall again, huge flakes swirling around in the escalating breeze and beginning to adhere to her curtained window.
Torch – flashlight
Estate agent – Real estate agent